At the beginning of 1970, the system of control that had prevailed for decades at the Washington State Penitentiary was about to collapse. By 1972, that system was only a memory. In this video, three men – Superintendent B. J. Rhay, prison chaplain Jim Cummins, and an inmate – talk about what convicts and staff both called “super custody.”
On New Year’s eve day, 1974 inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary took hostages in one of the cell blocks and in the prison hospital. In this audio tape, associate superintendent for custody at the time of the incident, Jim Harvey, describes how the hostages were rescued.
B. J. Rhay
Variously known as Bob, Bobby. B. J., warden, superintendent, and Mr. Rhay, B. J. Rhay has the distinction of being the longest serving superintendent of the Washington State Penitentiary in the prison’s history.
A decorated fighter pilot from World War II, Rhay returned to Walla Walla in 1945 where he got a degree in sociology from Whitman College and married the prison superintendent’s daughter. When his father-in-law joined the ranks of the unemployed due to a change in the governor’s mansion, Rhay went to work for Earle Stanley Gardner (of Perry Mason fame) on Gardner’s 1950s radio and TV show, “Court of Last Resort.”
Rhay was appointed superintendent in 1957 at the age of 35, making him the youngest prison superintendent in the country. Twenty years later, at the end of his tenure, he had been superintendent of the same maximum security prison longer than anyone else.
Rhay was the father of seven daughters, all raised in the superintendent’s residence in the shadow of the prison walls.
B. J. Rhay died in June, 2012, at the age of 91.
People’s Park was created in May 1971 shortly after Superintendent B. J. Rhay allowed the lifers to take over the grassy area between Seven and Eight Wings as dedicated outdoor space just for lifers. Not everyone thought this was a good idea. Note the misspelled “CONGRADULATIONS, GOVENOR” comment typed below Rhay’s memo to his associate superintendent for custody, Bill Macklin. The memo, with the added comment, was sent anonymously to Governor Dan Evans. Click here to see a picture of People’s Park.
Shortly after allowing the creation of Lifers’ Park at the penitentiary in April 1970, Superintendent Rhay authorized the Resident Government Council (RGC) to be in charge of what he called “a People’s Park area.” Formerly off-limits (inmates were required to keep to paved pathways), People’s Park was originally a grassy area next to Seven Wing, and south of the dining halls. It was later expanded when Rhay’s successor had the Lifers’ Construction Crew tear down the wall around what had been the outdoor exercise yard for men in segregation. The picture below is likely from 1978, after the wall around the segregation yard was demolished.
On Easter Sunday 1977, five days after officer Jim Hartford had his hand blown apart by a booby-trapped cigarette lighter, inmates set fire to the chapel and ransacked the inmate store. The resulting 46-day lockdown was the longest and most consequential in the penitentiary’s history up to that time. Superintendent Rhay called a meeting with the inmate Resident Council where he told the inmates “I’m the one you have to deal with, baby.” It didn’t turn out that way. (Click on images to make them larger.)
Memos describing the inmates’ intent at the start of the lockdown
Douglas Vinzant (seated) and B. J. Rhay
In late June 1977, after twenty years as superintendent of the Washington State Penitentiary, B. J. Rhay was replaced by Douglas Vinzant. Rhay was transferred to Olympia to lead an initiative called the “mini-prison” project. A few days after Rhay arrived in the state capital, the governor vetoed the appropriation for the mini-prisons. Rhay collected a few paychecks then accepted a job as commissioner of corrections in Montana.
The accompanying picture is from a scan of a print of a microfilm of a newspaper – which is why the image quality is what it is. Despite the picture quality, Rhay’s expression makes it clear this was not his best day.